PLA celebrating 27th anniversary of nation's involvement in UN missions overseas
"If you were killed during a mission, how would you like your UN death benefits to be distributed?"
That was one of the first questions Senior Colonel Yang Xijun was asked when he signed up as a military observer for the 2006 UN mission in Sudan, a North African country ravaged by tribal warfare, disease and poverty.
Yang's chosen role had historic resonance. On April 21, 1990, China participated in a peacekeeping mission for the first time by deploying five military observers in the Middle East as part of the UN Truce Supervision Organization.
Two years later, the country sent 400 People's Liberation Army engineers to assist the United Nations in Cambodia, China's first deployment of military personnel on an official "blue beret" mission.
More than 2,500 Chinese peacekeepers are participating in 10 UN-led missions, meaning the country provides a greater number of personnel than the four other permanent members of the Security Council combined.
China also is the second-largest financial contributor to peacekeeping missions, providing more than 10 percent of the .8 billion budget for 2016-17.
In 2015, President Xi Jinping committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force. He also pledged 0 million to the African standby force, which is backed by the African Union, and billion to establish the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
According to Gao Mingbo, section director of the Department of International Organizations and Conferences at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the three biggest changes during the 27 years in which China has participated in peacekeeping efforts are the increasing sophistication of missions, the wider range of personnel required and the growing volume of equipment and support funding.
While Yang agreed with Gao's assessment, he noted: "The success of peacekeeping missions ultimately falls on the shoulders of the brave men and women in blue helmets."
In February, Yang signed up for his fourth mission, as a high-ranking logistics officer for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, West Africa.
"Initially, my family thought I was mad for constantly throwing myself into foreign conflicts and risking my life for countries they barely knew," he said. "But I think it's a great honor to represent my country and to fight not for resources or dominance, but for stability and the greater good of those in need."
Eyes and ears
Military observers are like war reporters, according to Yang. They have to interact with local people, learn about the culture and the prevailing situation, and report any suspicious activities or violations of ceasefires or human rights to the UN Security Council.
"Since we are not allowed to carry weapons, our battles are fought with binoculars, cameras and notebooks," he said. "Our goal is to raise awareness and pull the international community together to prevent crimes against humanity. We are the Security Council's eyes and ears."
However, unlike reporters, who often have the luxury of working on the sidelines, "facing life-threatening danger is part of our daily routine", he said.
One of those dangers involves long-distance patrols. According to Yang, crossing disease-filled swamps and barren wilderness is considered easy, and the real challenge lies in fields laced with landmines, a common problem in the Western Sahara and South Sudan.
"In the car, we sit on top of our bulletproof vests and put sandbags on the floor, hoping they will absorb some of the blast from a small mine. But if we hit an anti-tank mine, we are dead," he said.